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The Wild One

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Most of us wouldn’t consider choosing the bold career of a naturalist. But if you’ve been on the fence, Ratna Singh’s story will inspire you to take the leap. Yamini Walia finds out more

Being a naturalist isn’t easy, but Ratna Singh has managed to excel despite all the hurdles that come with it. She started off as a naturalist with Taj Safaris and went on to become the company’s first professional female naturalist. In 2012, she was one of the finalists for TOFT’s (Travel Operators for Tigers) India’s Best Naturalist award. She now mentors and trains aspiring naturalists. Read on to find out more about her adventurous profession.

  •  Yours is a profession that people don’t really know too much about. Give us an insight into what your average day is like.

I’ve been a naturalist for many years, and I recently started working as a naturalist trainer, though I still do take guests out on safari trips in order to stay in touch with my craft. In either case, a regular day begins at dawn. We check our vehicles to ensure that everything is fine and that the tool kits are in place. Then, we meet with guests and go off on a safari. A morning safari usually lasts for four to five hours, and we are back by mid-day. During winter, if the weather is pleasant, we take a short nature walk. An afternoon safari usually lasts from 3 to 6pm. Then, it’s a quick wash and change for cocktails and story swapping around a bonfire with a spot of stargazing, which is followed by dinner. On many occasions, there may be some research to be done, which I do before going to bed. On some days, a jeep safari may be replaced with a walking safari, especially in Kanha, Madhya Pradesh, in which case we end up walking for around eight to ten kilometers. 

  •  What made you quit your job at the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)?

Well, I always wanted to be a naturalist, but I didn’t have the opportunity to be one before. I didn’t study science in college, so, I couldn’t get into researching in the field of natural sciences. The options available for women were at lodges — basically that of a host, or overseeing operations such as housekeeping. I dislike housekeeping in general, so there was no way that I was going to do it for someone else! When I heard about Taj Safaris, I thought I’d give it a try. No one thought that I would make it. I decided that if I succeeded, I would give it a year, and then leave. But, I just couldn’t! Now, I’m in my tenth year as a naturalist, and I don’t think I will ever leave the profession.

  •  You were selected as a finalist for India’s Best Naturalist award. How did that make you feel?

I was very humbled to be counted among the people at the top. However, it was also a validation of my hard work as well as my love for the wilderness. In a way, I think it offers people who love nature and want to be associated with it a little hope — it isn’t true that to have a career in the wild, you have to study zoology or botany. Having said that, once you’re in the field, it becomes imperative to take a scientific route, get into research and really understand the implications of the actions that we take, especially with respect to environment conservation.

  •  What facts do you think people misunderstand most about wild animals?

People think that animals have no feelings and that all predators are out to kill. However, the fact is that animals are never wasteful — a tiger won’t hunt when it’s not hungry. Giant elephants do respond to gentle words. Animals judge you by your body language and the vibe that you exude. The biggest misconception is about animal habitats. Tree cover is not enough — a forest needs all of its layers to be a true habitat — grassland or undergrowth, bushes as well as trees are important in order for all the different species to survive. There is immense inter-dependence and balance in the animal kingdom. Every little thing is connected. In the long run, it impacts humans as well. For instance, irresponsible harvesting of honey leads to a drop in the bee population, which in turn leads to reduced crop production.

  •  What sort of difficulties have you faced during your 10-year journey as a naturalist?

When I look back, I can’t pick out anything that really weighed me down enough for me to quit. However, it did get really tough at times. When I started out, most people in my group had prior experience with wildlife. I’ve always been an animal lover, but this was a different ball game altogether. Besides, this was the first time in India that a professional course like this was being offered, and in a way, it was a lot like boot camp. We would begin our day at dawn and wouldn’t sleep till nearly midnight. One morning, we started a nature walk at 9am and got back only by 2am. (And we still had to report at 6am the same day!) However, the training I received really toughened me up. In fact, on the rare  occasions when we did get a few hours off, it felt rather odd.

Of course, when a woman steps into a profession that has been a male-dominated one for the longest time, there are bound to be snide remarks and unprofessional talk. However, I was a national-level athlete, so I could focus properly on my tasks and drown out everything else. Besides, it really helped that I was with an organisation like Taj Safaris. Strangely, once I found my footing, I was at par with men and found myself growing faster.

  •  We hear that you plan to write short stories soon. What kind of audience are you going to cater to?

I’m not a seasoned enough author to write with a particular audience in mind. I will just write and will leave it to my editors and publishers to decide. I’ve finished  about six or seven stories so far, all of which are either personal experiences or those of friends and family. I don’t write fiction; I like to write about country life — it’s something that I was born into. I am a huge admirer of R K Narayan and Ruskin Bond, and love their narratives. I’m hoping that this will rub off in my writing too, and that I will author something that amuses both adults and youngsters.

  •  Can you explain your love for the wilderness in a few words?

It sets me free, makes me kinder and keeps me younger, healthier, and definitely more humane.

  •  Do you have any message for others who aspire to work like you?

As clichéd as it may sound, you must decide to do this full-time only if you absolutely love it. It’s better to test your passion by making short forays into the wilderness. Besides, it has to be a well thought-out decision. This isn’t just a profession; it will be your whole life. Unlike life in the city, where you go home after a day’s work, you cannot escape here. You live and work in the same place. There are also no avenues for entertainment, and there’s no time for it either. You cannot go out — not even for a cup of coffee like we do in the city. If we feel like going out for a meal, we have to give all the ingredients to a local dhaba so that the proprietress can cook for us. Working with wildlife seldom makes you rich, but it does give you a very rich life.

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